By Elizabeth Harrin (London)
When a previous boss of mine told me I’d be a more significant player at work when I looked older, I almost rushed out and bought a twin set and pearls. But surely there are other ways to get taken seriously at work, aside from dying your hair grey and borrowing clothes from your elderly aunts.
The Glass Hammer spoke to six experts about how to come across confidently, professionally, and seriously in the workplace. Here’s what they had to say.
- Have confidence in your ability
“Women often have less confidence than men – even when they have the same or superior smarts, experience, and talents,” says Ann Demarais, Ph.D., author of First Impressions: What you don’t know about how others see you, and owner of a business communication consultancy. “Their confidence is not always commensurate with their competence. Women leak this lack of confidence in their body language – by appearing quiet, fidgety, or overly perky.”
Demarais suggests seeking feedback from your manager and peers about your strengths, and then play to these. “You can’t flip a switch and ‘be more confident’,” she says, “but you can take steps to build up your confidence. If you are told that you have excellent client skills, in the next client meeting take the lead in the interaction or offer to present to clients at the next opportunity. When you know you can do something better than your peers, and be more direct and assertive in your actions.”
- Have confidence in yourself
“The impostor syndrome is a well-know phenomenon where individuals have a fear that they don’t have the skills needed to do their job, and that somehow, they will be found out,” says Laurent Duperval, president of Duperval Consulting in Montreal, Canada. “The young middle manager must believe that she has earned her place and has as much a right to be there as anyone else. That belief must be manifest in her attitude, whether in the way she walks, talks, or interacts with others. If she shows too much fear, if she caves in too often, if she is too wishy washy, it will only give others more reason not to take her seriously.”
- Follow up
“A lot of young women just assume they’re being ignored if they don’t hear back from a boss, client, or coworker and they never follow up,” says Dr. Debra Condren, who interviewed 500 women for her book, Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word, and founder of ManhattanBusinessCoaching.com. “Never assume someone is ignoring you,” she says. “I see young women do this all the time—they imagine the worst. ‘He didn’t respond to my email or voicemail; it’s been five days. That can only be a bad sign.’ They stay silent, fail to follow up, then miss an opportunity; they find out after it’s too late that the person never received their earlier communication. People are crazy busy; sometimes a gentle prod can dislodge the answer you’re looking for. Don’t assume you’ve been rejected. Make it easy for people to get back to you. Always state your phone number twice and provide your e-mail address, even if you know they already have it.”
Condren recommends following up using multiple communication channels. Leave an email and a voicemail. Stop by their office to make sure that they got the information. Condren suggests taking this approach because it’s difficult to tell how someone processes information: they could prefer a different communication channel to you. However, it’s an approach you should use with care. “Be brief—bare bones,” she recommends. “People are busy; they won’t listen to a rambling voice message or scroll down through a paragraph in an email.”
- Watch your language
“Many of the folks who lead projects for us are intelligent and passionate young women, straight out of college and taking a year or two off before grad school,” says Alison Risso, communications director for KaBOOM!, a U.S. non-profit that builds playgrounds in low-income areas. “Although these women are in charge of major projects, leading hundreds of volunteers – many of them corporate CEOs – through a complex project in a day, I have to work with many of them when they first come to KaBOOM! to help them stop disempowering speech patterns. Much of it is cultural ‘valley-girl’ talk,” she says.
Risso believes this results in creating peer-to-peer relationships that leave young women always asking for favours, or buy-in, or approval. “To try and fix this, I coach these young women on how to speak with authority, both in their word choice, their intonation, and their body language,” she says. “It’s amazing what a difference it makes.”
- Brush up your appearance
Diane Gottsman owns The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in corporate etiquette training. She works extensively with young women at work. “Being taken seriously is a very real hurdle,” she says. She recommends dressing the part. “It’s important for a young woman to leave her college wardrobe behind and ‘step up’ to the corporate wardrobe,” she says. “This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your individual personality or exhaust your bank account but it does mean that you must take a good look at the ‘executives’ in your office and understand the value of appropriate business attire.”
Gottsman also suggests polishing up how you come across in work situations where socialising is required. “Know how to dine like an executive,” she says. “Dining skills are evaluated by recruiters, employers and clients and knowing the rules will make a big difference in being viewed as a confident, polished executive.”
- Stay ahead of the curve
“Be an avid reader, observer and adopter of trends and techniques in public relations, marketing and business,” says Rhoda Weiss, Ph.D., who has been a CEO in the past and now is a business development consultant. “Understand and embrace diversity and multicultural communications. Articulate, knowledgeable innovators stand out in hiring and advancement.”
Weiss also recommends actively investing in what she calls ‘career insurance’. “Instead of buying designer coffee and drinks, invest a percentage of your income into a ‘career’ account,” she says. “Use those funds towards conferences, industry and executive sessions.” And when you do get to those events, follow another one of Weiss’ maxims: Never Sit Near Anyone You Know. “My life has been enriched and knowledge expanded from talking to strangers, boldly approaching newcomers and leaving the comfort of my friends,” she explains. Try it!